URBANA — These are the happiest of times — collectively — for the University High boys’ soccer program.
The Illineks are on the verge of making their state tournament debut in the sport Friday and are guaranteed of returning home with a trophy Saturday.
This time of joyous celebration comes during a period that is among the saddest of times — individually — for senior midfielder Paul Seeley.
Twelve days ago, his father, Joseph, passed away following a 21-month battle with leukemia.
What affects one, in this instance, pulls at the heartstrings of the team.
“It’s a lot more personal for our team, not just me,” Paul Seeley said. “My dad coached a large portion of the team in U-8 through U-11 (with what was then the Little Illini Soccer Club).
“I am going through a tough time, and others are going through a tough time because of me.”
Joseph Seeley attended several of Uni’s soccer matches during the regular season and last saw his youngest son play Oct. 4, nine days before his death.
“He gave me the comments he always did, what I needed to improve, what I did well,” Paul Seeley said.
The hero’s role
Uni High’s closest tournament match thus far was a 2-1 overtime win against Manteno in the sectional semifinals at Schlarman. The winning goal, scored in the 97th minute, was made by Paul Seeley.
“I felt like I was playing for him,” he said. “It felt great. I ran over and gave my mom (Jan) a hug. She was in tears.”
The game was played five days after his father’s death.
“The comment Jan made was that the spirit of Joe Seeley was in the house,” Uni High coach Phil Anders said.
The games, and the practices, have helped the teen-ager cope during this traumatic time.
“When I am on the soccer field, that is a two-hour bloc when I don’t think of anything else,” Paul Seeley said. “Because of what is going on, I can take my mind off of other things.”
His teammates, many of whom he started playing soccer with as an 8-year-old, have been supportive. Seniors Tarik Koric, Alex Mestre,
Freddie Stavins, George Voulgaris and Patrick Wong are among the ones who’ve provided emotional support and uplifting.
“I talk to them a lot, explain how I’m feeling,” Paul Seeley said. “A lot of people, you tell them, and they get sad and don’t offer support. They’re always positive and help me keep my mind straight.”
Paul Seeley got his start in soccer playing for a Little Illini team coached by Robert Baird. Eventually, Baird moved to a different age-group squad and Joseph Seeley took over as coach.
“My dad didn’t play soccer, but devoted a lot of time to being a good coach,” Paul Seeley said.
The strategies at the youth levels weren’t as sophisticated as they are now, but Seeley and teammates learned the soccer fundamentals that they carry with them to this day.
“How to possess the ball, simple passing skills,” Paul Seeley said.
In an interesting twist, Joseph Seeley not only helped introduce his son to soccer, but Anders said he was also responsible for his first high school coaching position.
“I wouldn’t be coaching at Uni without Joe Seeley,” Anders said. “He was one of the persons who recommended me to (athletic director) Sally Walker. He has always been behind-the-scenes, making things happen, working with young people in this community.”
A father’s influence
There are life lessons that Paul Seeley learned from his father. They are values he tries to practice every day.
“In any situation, he was a calming presence,” Paul Seeley said. “He would remind you to keep a level head.”
If he finds himself irritated or angry, before he lashes out, Paul Seeley said, “I think, ‘Would my Dad be doing this?’ The answer is usually ‘no.’ He’d mediate the situation.”
As the end of the nine-week quarter approaches at Uni High and, “every teacher is piling on the work,” Paul Seeley said, he understands the importance of being as focused in the class room as he is on the soccer pitch.
“My dad was a big part of my schoolwork,” Paul Seeley said. “He wants me to be a success in everything I do.”
As for his future, Paul Seeley is applying for admission to Illinois, Indiana, Boston College, Penn, Villanova and Southern California he said, “to give myself some geographic options.” His interest is in pursuing a degree in business.
Quality time together
Joseph Seeley was diagnosed with leukemia in January 2011. His youngest son was a high school sophomore. His oldest son, Jake, was a junior at Haverford College.
Until August, the gamut of emotions covered the spectrum.
“He would go into remission, then it would be back, then back into remission,” Paul Seeley said. “At the beginning of the school year, we learned he was not going to get better.”
With Jake Seeley at home, delaying his entrance into graduate school at California-Berkeley for a semester, the family spent time creating more lasting memories.
“Make the most of what we have,” Paul Seeley said.
Joseph Seeley’s presence at Uni High matches was understandable to Anders.
“My feeling is what would I want to be doing in the final days,” Anders said. “Joe made sure he was doing the things he enjoyed. That’s a testament to the kind of person he was.”
A future in soccer
When Uni High takes the field for Friday’s 7 p.m. state semifinal match against Keith Country Day School, the Illineks will be wearing the same black arm bands they wore during the sectional and super-sectional.
“Our Uni soccer program is like one big family,” Anders said. “Like in any family, there are ups and downs. There have been plenty of ups with the great technical accomplishments on the field.
“A number of these guys have grown up together and had Joe as a coach at some point. Now they’ve been there for Paul. One gesture they wanted was to wear the black arm bands. The best thing we can do is celebrate his spirit.”
Paul Seeley is staying busy, doing as well as anyone could expect.
“It is important,” he said, “to focus on the happy points and not let yourself get too down.”
Anders marvels at his maturity and composure.
“He probably is doing better than I am doing,” Anders said. “He has handled it much better than I could (at that age). Our soccer community has lost a great friend.”
Soccer won’t become an afterthought for Paul Seeley after this weekend.
“I’ll still be playing soccer,” he said, “but it will be FIFA on X-Box, and some of us are thinking about getting an indoor team together at Soccer Planet.”
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.